Monday 21 July 2014

Gluck's Orfeo at Buxton

Michael Chance as Orfeo in Gluck's opera at the Buxton Festival - photo Robert Workman
Michael Chance as Orfeo, in the Elysian Fields
photo Robert Workman
Gluck Orfeo; Michael Chance, Northern Chamber Orchestra, conductor Stuart Stratford, director Stephen Medcalf; Buxton Festival at Buxton Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 19 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Intense, modern version of Gluck's 1762 Italian opera

Buxton Festival have been celebrating Gluck's 300th anniversary with a new production of Orfeo (seen 19 July 2014). Directed by Stephen Medcalf and designed by Francis O'Connor with lighting by Malcolm Rippeth, the opera featured counter-tenor Michael Chance in the title role with Barbara Bargnesi as Euridice and Daisy Brown as Amore. Stuart Stratford conducted the Northern Chamber Orchestra. Choreographer Paula O'Reilly was assistant director.

The Festival performed Gluck's original Italian version premiered in 1762 in Vienna. Other options could have been Gluck's French version (with an haut-contre in the title role), Berlioz's adaptation of the French version for mezzo-soprano and the so-called Ricordi edition which conflates all of these and was, until recently, the standard version.

Gluck's Orfeo at Buxton Festival - photo Robert Workman
Gluck's Orfeo at Buxton Festival
photo Robert Workman
Stephen Medcalf set the opera in a loosely contemporary period with Orfeo as an ageing rock-star. Francis O'Connor's settings were abstract and based on the huge letters spelling out Orfeo's name at the opening. Act one and act two, scene one were basically black, whilst act two scene two (the Elysian Fields) was a gloriously clear-skied Californian beach party with chorus dressed to match and providing the evening solitary splash of colour. During the overture we saw the end of Orfeo's act and how he ignored Euridice for the adulation of the crowds. Medcalf did not push the concept and much of the action remained abstract and concentrated on the protagonists. Here Medcalf's personenregie clearly paid dividends and from start to finish the performance was musically and dramatically riveting. Medcalf had clearly read the libretto and listened to the music, and his production reflected this.

But the exact setting in Orfeo matters less than the way the directors treat the dance element in the opera. Gluck was very influenced by the French tragedie lyrique with its seamless mix of solo, ensemble and dance. So what goes on in the dance moments in Orfeo can, frankly, make or break a production. Medcalf and O'Reilly didn't have any dance as such, but movement was beautifully and expressively integrated into the drama. The act one dances were a long sequence of leave taking for Orfeo's followers which I found very expressive. The movement for the furies in act two was, thankfully, imaginative rather than embarassing, and there were delightful silly games for the clearly stoned denizens of the Californian beach-party in the Elysian Fields. Bargnesi's Euridice was present all the time in this scene, this was part of the game, and you could see clearly why Euridice was reluctant to leave the Elysian Fields.

Daisy Brown and Barbara Bargnesi in Gluck's Orfeo at Buxton Festival - photo Robert Workman
Daisy Brown and Barbara Bargnesi
photo Robert Workman
Only at the end of the opera did Medcalf and O'Reilly seem to run out of steam. The Vienna version has an extended dance final and with the modern dance moves to period music you felt the directors failing to integrate the dance into the drama.

Michael Chance gave a remarkably intense performance in the title role. He is a fine actor and was completely mesmerising throughout. His voice now has a lived-in quality but then again Orfeo is under extreme stress. When coaching the castrato Guadagni in the title role, Gluck wanted Orfeo's opening cries of Euridice to sound as if he had stuck a nail in his foot. Che faro was powerful, expressive and rather moving; the last cry of a desperate man rather than a finely crafted display vehicle.

The Italian soprano Barbara Bargnesi was a delight as Euridice, showing great personal charm during the Elysian Fields scene and then pleading with Orfeo with great intensity in act three. The two singers here developed a finely expressive rapport, which brought dramatic vividness to Gluck's music whilst preserving the classical poise.

Daisy Brown was a complete charmer as Amore. Brown is a member of the Buxton Festival Chorus and so Amore was present for the whole of Orfeo's journey, observing and helping him. At the end Medcalf clearly felt uncertainty at the resolution, with both Orfeo and Euridice seeming as infatuated with Amore as with each other. Brown's rendering of Amore's act one solo managed to bring out the music's charm whilst putting across the more complex message of the text.

Barbara Bargnesi and Michael Chance in Gluck's Orfeo at Buxton Festival - photo Robert Workman
Barbara Bargnesi and Michael Chance
photo Robert Workman
The chorus has an important role in the opera, and the 16 strong Buxton Festival chorus worked hard, giving us some fine singing and nicely dramatic moments.

Stuart Stratford conducted the Northern Chamber Orchestra in a poised and expressive account of Gluck's score. Whilst not strictly HIP, there was a litheness about the playing which was appealing and they brought a lovely underlying warmth to Gluck's orchestration.

Too often Gluck's Orfeo is an opera which is admired rather than loved, and where the characters impress rather than deeply move. But here, Medcalf and O'Reilly had produced a highly satisfying and profoundly moving drama, with some fine performances. Stuart Stratford drew some stylish playing from the orchestra and in the title role, Michael Chance was truly mesmerising.
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